Thursday, February 19, 2004

Roundhouse Round-up: Pressure in the Halls of Power

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

The clock is edging toward midnight Tuesday at the Roundhouse -- and edging ever closer to the noon Thursday cutoff when the session, as mandated by the state Constitution, must end.

The vote has just been taken on the food/medical tax repeal in the Senate. An ad-hoc coalition of five Democrats and 17 Republicans has just passed a substitute bill that sponsor Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, unabashedly described as a "tactical move."

Another Democrat, Tim Jennings of Roswell, has framed the substitute as a way to send a message to Gov. Bill Richardson, who only hours before had threatened -- and that's Richardson's word -- to call a special session if he doesn't get the tax bill he wants by the session's end.

The atmosphere in the hallway between the Senate gallery and the Senate lounge is understandably tense.

Various senators wander in and out of the gallery with dazed expressions brought on by the day's seemingly endless session. Standing in the hallway with stern expressions are Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks, House Speaker Ben Luján of Nambé -- who sponsored the original House Bill 625 that just got ravaged in the Senate -- and Luján's assistant Regis Pecos.

"This isn't over yet," passers-by keep whispering to reporters in the hall.

It seemed the vote was done, but the real work had just begun.

The word is the Senate will vote to reconsider the bill. To do so, someone who had voted with the majority would have to make the motion to reconsider.

If this is going to happen, conventional wisdom said, it will be one of five Democrats who voted for the Smith substitute -- Smith, Jennings, Michael Sanchez of Belen, Linda Lopez of Albuquerque and Lidio Rainaldi of Gallup.

With the shift of just one vote, the tally would be 21-21. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish would break the tie and go against the Smith substitute.

Immediately after the vote, the focus seems to be on Rainaldi, a kindly faced, grandfatherly, retired magistrate judge who some say resembles actor Abe Vigoda.

As Rainaldi emerges from the gallery, the speaker approaches him.

As the two walk down the hall together, I overhear Rainaldi say, "Let me explain something to you," to Luján. Unfortunately that's all I hear.

"The speaker is leaning on (Rainaldi) as hard as he knows how," Smith later tells reporters.

The speaker and the senator disappear for a few minutes. When Rainaldi comes back into the hallway, Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, who voted against the Smith substitute, grabs him.

"Lidio, can I talk to you for a minute?" The two go into the Senate Lounge for several minutes. I don't think they're talking about the weather.

About 20 minutes later, a weary-looking Rainaldi is seen walking briskly down the outer hall.

He's polite as I try to get a word from him. But he doesn't slow down.

"No, nobody's pressuring me," the senator says, not very convincingly.

But asked whether he'd make the motion to reconsider, Rainaldi replies, "I don't know. I don't know what the bill is going to say."

Some wags said Rainaldi voted for the Smith substitute because the original bill didn't include gross-receipts taxes on dentists. He has a son who's a dentist.

This implies some new version of House Bill 625 is in the works.

Meanwhile Smith has no allusions that his substitute bill has much of a future.

He only introduced it to put a monkeywrench in the progress of the original bill, which he vehemently opposes. "I had 22 votes tonight, but I've been here long enough to know that could slip away," he tells reporters.

By Wednesday morning, Rainaldi no longer seems like the focus of arm-twisting. Rumors now center around Lopez or possibly Sanchez as the one who'd make the motion to reconsider.

Update: Shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday on the floor of the Senate, Rainaldi made that motion. He and Sanchez would change their votes and vote against the Smith substitute Wednesday, though their votes were offset by Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint and Sen. Joe Carrarro, R-Albuquerque changing their minds and voting for the substitute on Wednesday.